The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 has several terms grouped together, as befits a goal: hunger, food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture. This does not mean that these terms are synonymous. Only the daring will try to measure the sustainability of agriculture through nutrition data. Therefore, by refining the goals, SDG-2 has separate targets on undernourishment, food insecurity, stunting (height for age) and malnutrition (weight for height).
It is difficult to distinguish between undernourishment and malnutrition and the FAO tends to equate food insecurity with malnutrition and equate it with hunger. With India’s subsidized food security programs, hunger is unlikely to be a problem. Indeed, consumption surveys from the National Sample Survey showed that almost all households, rural and urban, reported receiving two meals a day. The discourse must shift from hunger to malnutrition. This is why India’s national indicator framework for the SDGs (developed by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation) includes indicators such as underweight, stunting and wasting of children under five, pregnant women and anemic children, women with low BMI and marginalized populations without access to subsidized food grains. To repeat the obvious, since it is not often appreciated, what is true of children, or women for that matter, need not be true of the general population. When it comes to numbers, it’s best to remember them.
Next is the GHI (Global Hunger Index), with a self-proclaimed peer-reviewed methodology. There are four indicators: undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting and child mortality. Since these are indicators, is it correct to call this a hunger index? One-sixth of the weighting is attached to child stunting, 1/6 to child wasting, 1/3 to infant mortality and 1/3 to undernourishment. The nomenclature of “hunger” is motivated by undernourishment, which concerns the whole population, not just children.
Why are such indices constructed? Probably to influence politics. So there is a normative angle to such an exercise. It’s not just academic and intellectual. Under ‘policy’, we are given the somewhat empty general statement: ‘The 2022 GHI reflects both the alarming hunger scandal in too many countries around the world as well as the changing trajectory in countries where decades of progress in the fight against hunger are being eroded. .” There is no specific mention of children or women, suggesting that the policy intent is to focus on hunger, not the other indicators, even though they are in the index. All policy statements have value judgments. Is an increase in child stunting and wasting necessarily bad? Most people will probably automatically answer yes. However, infant and child mortality declined simultaneously. Surely that’s a good thing. These are children who would otherwise have died. Now born, they are now likely to be underweight, stunted and emaciated, compared to average, which will lower the numbers.
If the methodology had been truly peer-reviewed, not peer-reviewed, it is highly likely that a reviewer would have suggested separating the indicators for the general population from those for children. This allows a teasing of the policy, distinct for the two segments. For child-related indicators, we have figures from the NFHS-5 (National Family Health Survey), conducted between 2019 and 2021. The recent UNDP report on multidimensional poverty used it to document the decline in poverty . Thus, we understand where the data come from for three of the four indicators. The data come from surveys and not from a complete enumeration, as is the case for a census.
Nevertheless, the sample size of the NFHS is large enough. Where did FAO get data on undernourishment or hunger, the fourth indicator? This is not data that a standard survey gets numbers on. FAO decided to conduct its own survey, as it has done in the past, through its Food Insecurity Experience Scale survey module, which has eight questions. As most people know by now, this survey was administered to a sample of 3,000 people. At a time when a conversation with just one taxi driver offers political information, 3,000 might seem like a lot. But in a country like India, most people would laugh at that sample size.
Peer-reviewed or not, the questions seem strange to anyone who has written quizzes. For example, question 8 has, as a question asked, “Did you go without eating for an entire day due to a lack of money or other resources?” Its good. But question 1 says, “Were you worried about not having enough to eat because of a lack of money or other resources?” There should be serious reservations about questions that concern state of mind. It’s getting worse. Admittedly, the questions were not asked in English. Yes, we asked them in Hindi. Question 6 indicates: “Did your household run out of food due to lack of money or other resources?” The Hindi translation, as requested, is “apke ghar mein bhojana ki kami ho gayi kyonki ghar mei paise ya anya samashadano ki kami thi”. “To run out” means there is no food. “Kami” means less food. Answering yes to the Hindi question is not the same as answering yes to the English question.
It’s more than just semantics. This is a serious translation error. Such errors may be due to incompetence or they may be deliberate. In an exercise that has been peer-reviewed and has had to go through successive iterations, incompetence and inadvertence are unlikely to be the answer. Be that as it may, by propagating something like GHI, the FAO has done itself a great disservice, trivializing a serious problem, where transnational hunger surveys in other countries must also have been subject to serious abnormalities.
The author is Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. Views are personal
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